Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks: Friends, enemies
and frenemies of the state

In the universe of the Facebook social messaging experience, it’s possible to gain a following, some loose confederation of fellow travelers who are interested in your exploits and insights, people who are presumably in your corner on your journey through life. These are your “Friends,” and just as easily as they’re acquired, they can be ignored, dissed or dismissed. In the world of Facebook, you can even “unfriend” someone.

Another coinage — “frenemies” (which dates to the 1950’s) — is a portmanteau of friend and enemy, and of their contrasting emotional states (love and hate, trust and suspicion). It’s a foundational experience of the business world, the social-media universe and our emotionally splintered society. Your Facebook frenemy, for example, might be the cheerleader you detest, the one you need to Stay In Touch with because she helps decide who gets on the squad — the same one you want to join.

The scope of Sunday’s mammoth release of secret and confidential U.S. government diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks organization — the first of 251,000 U.S. government cables spanning more than forty years of American foreign policy — has the editors and analysts scrambling for descriptors. Some have latched on to the phrase “security theater,” but it’s more than that.

As much as anything, The WikiLeaks power dump (aided by publication in The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and other top papers) shows how global foreign policy and our own have evolved, or devolved, into a matter of identifying friends, enemies and frenemies of the United States, employing snap assessments and asserting narrow self-interests, and navigating the ever-changing distinctions between them. It’s not security theater, it’s diplomacy as scuttlebutt — anti-social media.

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We’ve come to expect a certain amount of duplicity from our diplomats like we expect it from everyone else’s (diplomatic immunity wasn’t invented for nothing). But with the WikiLeaks action, we’re finding that diplomacy takes many forms — from snarky suspicion to character assassinations to frightening speculations about rogue states and bad actors, their capabilities and intentions — and that the United States has no monopoly on the arrogance of power.

You can’t, as they say, make this stuff up. Thanks to the WikiLeaks dump, we discover that the secretary of state once ordered diplomats to engage in high-tech spying on functionaries of the United Nations; that one Middle Eastern leader wanted the prisoners at Gitmo microchipped like pets to mark their whereabouts by GPS after release; that the president of Afghanistan may be mentally unhinged; that the ego of one Russian leader may be no match for another one; that the moves and countermoves and counter-countermoves we’ve long suspected (and often seen played to one degree or another in any number of espionage movies) are action items for heads of state and their subordinates in the field.

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The debate over the WikiLeaks action has been swift and fierce.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and now a professor at College of William & Mary, told Keith Olbermann on MSNBC: “It’s lamentable that these things leaked, but I don’t think there’s been any major damage done ..."

True enough. Some of the cables the media has focused on (let’s call them “WikiLeaks Greatest Hits”) are more sensational than seditious, a geopolitical version of TMZ. Vladimir Putin is an “alpha dog,” while Russian President Dimitri Medvedev appears “afraid, hesitant.” There are concerns over the stability of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (nicknamed “Teflon” in the cable) “avoids risks and is rarely creative.”

The characterizations of major world leaders are subject to the same flattening, the same uniformity as everyone else in a 24/7 media environment. For all the rhetorical fire and political outrage brought against WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange, some of the cables released so far are the diplomatic equivalent of “girrrl, let me tell you what that fool did today.”

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The Obama White House is obviously not pleased, condemning the WikiLeaks disclosures in the “strongest terms.” At Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder said an “active, ongoing criminal investigation” into WikiLeaks is underway. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, more than a little hyperbolically, that “WikiLeaks has put at risk … the cause of human rights.”

James Rubin, former State Department spokesman under President Clinton, and something of a point man for that agency’s reactions, took a reliably pro-government view Monday on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

“What I make of it overall is that somehow an organization [WikiLeaks] that was originally intending perhaps to affect the debate in this country about the Iraq war, say, or the war in Afghanistan has somehow morphed into an anti-American organization whose very purpose appears to be to weaken the ability of State Department diplomats to do their job.”

Rubin said the State Department’s greatest asset “is the trust it develops with foreign governments, diplomats in those countries, human rights workers in those countries, or others who are sharing information based on trust. And no matter what any of [WikiLeaks’] proponents will say about this … in one way or another, the trust between the United States and many foreign governments has been weakened.”

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Rubin’s admonishment is true enough, in many respects. But the underlying question arising from the erosion of trust he says has taken place is: Who do you blame for that?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Optics and gut checks

On Monday morning about 10 a.m., at locations in Boston, and in Stamford and Greenwich, Conn., FBI agents executed search warrants issued by the Justice Department to raid the offices of Loch Capital Management, Diamondback Capital Management LLC and Level Global Partners LP — the first of forthcoming federal inquiries into an evolving form of insider trading, involving “expert network” firms paid large fees by hedge funds to match those funds with industry specialists, whose specialized knowledge of given companies is transmitted to securities traders.

The raids on these precincts of American wealth were troubling enough, happening as they did while the country rebounds from a recession that’s still rippling through (despite its official obituary a few months back). But considering the leverage an issue of concern either gains or loses vis-à-vis the public’s perception of that issue —the way it looks to ordinary Americans — Monday’s raids could deal a public-relations setback to the proponents of tax cuts on Capitol Hill.

For months now, conservatives at think tanks, in the media and in Congress have rallied around the idea that repealing the Bush tax cuts would be the first big step toward revitalizing the battered national economy. With more than 15 million Americans out of work, the Republican position has consistently been that repeal of all of those tax cuts — including cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year, at a loss of more than $700 billion in tax breaks to that moneyed class — would be something close to a magic bullet for the economy.

(Never mind the fact that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has reported that an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts to the country’s wealthiest 2 percent would not be the best approach to stimulating job growth as a spur to the overall economy. The cuts would “roughly double the projected budget deficit in 2020,” a CBO report found in September.)

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Few things distill the us-versus-them component of the debate over the tax cuts quite like the image of armed civil-SWAT squads from the FBI descending like avenging locusts on three hedge-fund headquarters in the wee small hours. But the adversarial reflex has a basis in law: In Tuesday’s Dealbook blog in The New York Times, Peter J. Henning explained the apparent reasoning behind the Monday raids:

“By using a search warrant rather than a grand jury subpoena, prosecutors have signaled there is a good chance that securities laws were violated, and they want evidence gathered quickly and in a way that avoids the possibility that some material might be destroyed.”

It’s safe to say that, after the panoramic criminality of Bernie Madoff, and the list of scandals and collapses from Worldcom to Enron to AIG to Lehman Brothers, the mood of Americans probably isn’t capacious enough right now to make allowances for more of that willfully bad behavior. Not when they can’t even get their unemployment benefits extended.

And the optics of the DoJ investigation — how it looks, how it plays with the broad cross-section of the American people — matters. When a country weary of Wall Street’s proven greed-is-good mentality has to face it again, in the middle of the worst economy since the Great Depression, the burden of proof is on the conservatives on Congress to justify moving $700 billion into private hands in what would amount to a bailout for the rich. Some of the same people who’re likely to be “persons of interest,” at least, in the DoJ investigation now underway.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Palin’s takedown

It was bad enough that political personality Sarah Palin had to contend with two oversized disses from within the conservative camp late last week. In what looked like a tag-team takedown, conservative columnist Mona Charen and Barbara Bush, Queen Mother of the Republicans, both jumped off the turnbuckles, roundly dismissing Palin and, by extension, any plans she may be nurturing for a 2012 presidential run.

But maybe the most important rejection of Palin’s hold on the conservative psyche happened Wednesday, when The Associated Press called the bitterly contested Alaska Senate race between GOP incumbent Lisa Murkowski and Tea Party darling/Palin anointee Joe Miller. Murkowski, who lost the primary, got back on the Nov. 2 ballot and won re-election by (by recent count) at least 10,000 votes — the first senatorial write-in candidate to do this since Strom Thurmond pulled it off in 1954.

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Murkowski, a politician with GOP pedigree but centrist roots that borrow from the independent Alaskan spirit, is in the driver’s seat right now. First of all, she’s got bragging rights to a status no other politician in the country has: defeated in the primary by Palin’s efforts, she’s bounced back in the face of Palinmania, succeeding despite the caribou diva’s best efforts.

And Murkowski benefits from understanding what Palin’s either ignored or forgotten: to truly wield power in Washington, you need to get elected. And once you get elected, you need to stay in that office until you finish the job you were elected to do (something you can’t do when you bail out halfway through your first term).

With the leverage of a seat in the United States Senate, Murkowski will soon be exquisitely positioned to play a possibly pivotal role in the national debate, to effect changes that right now Sarah Palin can only pontificate about. Murkowski recognizes the value of a geographic power base, a real power base and not one ginned up for a reality show.

Despite the picture-postcard presentation of the virtues of Alaska, Palin’s new TLC reality miniseries has all the, uh, earmarks of being as much an advertisement for herself as for the state she lives in. And with the results of the Nov. 2 election apparently done and done (despite Miller’s plan to block the vote’s certification), the people of Alaska refudiated Palin’s presumptive allegiance to the state, and the equally presumptive claim she thought she had on their political view — and their preference in senatorial candidates.

The Mama Grizzly has made independent Alaskan thinking part of the Sarah Palin brand. It was to be expected, then, that the people of that state (albeit by a narrow margin) would ultimately exercise their prerogative to think the same way.

Image credits: Murkowski: Associated Press. Palin: TLC. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

The 'Worst' among us

The “Worst Persons in the World” segment of MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” has always been one of those guiltless TV pleasures, a public skewering of agents of various bad behaviors. “Get out your pitchforks and torches,” Olbermann says with glee before introducing his brief and personal snapshot catalog of the three worst people alive for the day.

The segment was briefly retired on Nov. 1, a concession to Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, and its subsequent call to modify the tone of the cable debate. But on Wednesday, Olbermann  brought "Worst Persons" back, adding the words “(Not Really)” to the segment’s title — an unnecessary change that’s concerning in the way it softens the emotional punch of the original segment, and puts rubber caps on the pitchforks and snuffs out the torches of its own acerbic intent.

From its inception, the “Worst Persons” segment has been a refreshingly snarky, sometimes emotionally effective way of calling out a variety of knuckleheads, mountebanks, hypocrites and oafs at every level of society, and to do it in a visible forum their exploits would otherwise probably never have achieved.

It was made even more effective because it was so obviously an exaggeration of the truth. There’s no way to know at any given moment which of the 6.88 billion people on this planet really is the Earth’s Worst Person. It’s fundamentally open to conjecture; you got your Worst Person, I got mine and Keith has his. It wasn’t the best idea to modify the segment’s biting but ultimately benign humor for the sake of moderating the “tone” of his part of the national discourse. His audience gets it. We always did.

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And the Not Really qualifier is apparently a semi-permeable thing. By accident, Olbermann tonight showed just how ineffective the new Not Really Worst Persons really is.

Former president George W. Bush made the cut for the disconnect between the “sickening feeling” he had upon discovering that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (recounted in his new book “Decision Points”) and the lighthearted treatment W gave to the matter in a March 2004 speech — making a stand-up routine out of the utter absence of his rationale for taking this country into a ruinous elective war our children’s children’s children will be paying for.

Olbermann called Bush “today’s Worst Person in the World” ... but without adding the Not Really parenthetical.

Obviously, the exception KO made tonight undercuts the reasoning for the Not Really disclaimer being there in the first place. It reinforced what we already know: that these are Olbermann’s assessments, and an extension of the pointed, free-wheeling commentary that’s made “Countdown” and Olbermann appointment viewing for millions.

And anyway, “Worst Persons” has always been so implicitly over-the-top in its verdicts, so transparently an expression of personal opinion, you have to wonder about the threshold of civility of those who objected to the original version.

You’d wonder, too, how the segment will ever be as effective in its new, self-muzzling flavor as it was with the original zest and acid intact.

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KO conducted a poll on the “Worst Persons” segment, leaving it to his viewers to determine its fate; 73  percent voted to see it return to “Countdown” in its original unapologetic form, without the disclaimer. A significantly smaller number (15 percent) voted for making a change.

Used to be that the majority ruled (especially by a nearly 5:1 ratio). For that reason alone, it’d be good if Olbermann reconsidered his decision. It was fair to give the Not Really approach a trial run, to see how it played on live TV. But now, having already made one exception, Olbermann’s clearly opened the door to others.

As events unfold every day, as new atrocities and incivilities emerge, there’s less and less reason for KO to feel he’s crossed some line of decorum that hasn’t already been crossed by the objects of the Worst Persons tribute themselves.

There’s no end of candidates for the honor right now— and Sarah Palin hasn’t even announced yet! If KO’s already making exceptions, there’s every reason to believe that more will follow (2012 should be a very good year).

The title of Worst Person can’t be Worser than the act or utterance that got that person into the segment. Why pretend that it is?

At least that’s where I’m coming from. What’s your take? KO took a poll before the change; check out the entirely non-scientific poll on the right side of this page, and cast a vote.

Or not. It’s just your expression of how you feel about this. Like my expression. Or like Keith Olbermann’s.

It’s just an opinion, and like that other necessary personal item … everybody’s got one.


Image credits: Olbermann: kristilovesputi, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Countdown poll and title card: MSNBC.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Heart implant to Dr. Harris, stat!

Yeah, the month’s just past half over, so there’s plenty of time for another to claim the crown (now that Olbermann plans to revive the “Worst Persons” segment on “Countdown,” albeit with an asterisk to let everyone know he’s kidding*).

But for now, the prohibitive favorite for Hypocrite of the Month honors goes to Andy Harris of Maryland, the incoming freshman Republican congressman, who, as Politico reported Tuesday, has managed to contradict the thrust of his anti-Obamacare campaign message and give the notion of Congress as a Me-First lobby (already a deeply resonating national suspicion) a name and a face.

According to Politico, Harris, a conservative anesthesiologist and state senator just elected to Congress, was attending a Monday freshman orientation session at the Capitol Visitors Center auditorium in Washington when he “surprised fellow freshmen … by demanding to know why his government-subsidized health care plan takes a month to kick in.”

Politico’s Glenn Thrush reported that Harris “reacted incredulously when informed that federal law mandated that his government-subsidized health care policy would take effect on Feb. 1 – 28 days after his Jan. 3rd swearing-in.”

Thrush reported the comments of one congressional aide: “He stood up and asked the two ladies who were answering questions why it had to take so long, what he would do without 28 days of health care.”

“This is the only employer I’ve ever worked for where you don’t get coverage the first day you are employed,” Harris is quoted as saying.

The aide told Politico that “Harris then asked if he could purchase insurance from the government to cover the gap.”

The aide was taken aback, Thrush reported, “by the similarity to Harris’s request and the public option he denounced as a gateway to socialized medicine.”

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This is wrong on so many levels. First, it makes a mockery of the stand Harris took against the initiatives of so-called Obamacare during his campaign, and shows why the Me First meme is what so many Americans believe about lawmakers on Capitol Hill. For Harris, it’s all about the Benjamins — the ones that stay in his pocket now that he’s at the public trough.

Secondly, and stemming from the first issue: there are few things that could so clearly symbolize the disconnect between politicians in general (conservative ideologically-bound politicians in particular) and the people they presume to represent. God forbid poor Andy Harris — a doctor! A professor of gynecology and obstetrics! At Johns Hopkins! has to wait 28 whole days to get the best health care in the country, for free.

How unlike the people from his district in Maryland, many of whom are probably coming up on 28 months without health care, care they can’t afford to pay for. The people alluded to in a Brookings Institution report, from January, that found the real impact of poverty and the recession is typified by life in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties — three of the counties in Harris’ district.

He hasn’t even fully arrived in Washington yet and he’s already cutting himself off from the citizens who put him there. Whining about a one-month wait for that which they can’t have at all. Get me a goddamn violin.

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Oh, he’ll gin up some way to spin this into insignificance. He hasn’t even gotten his office yet (that happens in the House on Friday) but he’s already learning damage control. He canceled a scheduled interview with The Baltimore Sun. Then, on Tuesday, Harris told Baltimore NBC affiliate WBAL that his Comments Were Misconstrued.

Harris said he wasn’t referring to his situation when he took the floor on Monday.

"Not my family," he told WBAL. "I have insurance, and I have the ability to have insurance. But for anyone else who gets a job — and again, the irony that the federal government would go to the American people and our employers and say you have to provide insurance — and yet our federal employees get hired, and if they don't get hired on the right day of the month, they actually have to go without health care for awhile."

Nice try, Doc. Seven weeks before he’s sworn into office, Andy Harris owes his constituents an apology for bad manners, for insensitivity and tone-deafness to those in his district less fortunate than he is, and for contradicting the thrust of his own philosophical platform. And he needs to step up and do it now, before his first term begins, before his opponents and the media can make more use of it ... while he can still help shape the narrative.

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It may already be too late for that. Tuesday’s Baltimore Sun released an e-mail from an aide to Frank Kratovil, whom Harris defeated Nov. 2.

From the e-mail: "Despite railing against the evils of government-subsidized health care for the last two years, Andy Harris chose to introduce himself on the national stage yesterday by demanding earlier access to his taxpayer-subsidized government health care benefits, and expressing shock that he would instead be treated like all other federal employees in having to wait … for his coverage to kick in.

"It has taken Rep.-Elect Harris less than two weeks to start grabbing national headlines for his arrogance and sense of entitlement."

It’s a truism: You want to hit the ground running in a new job. It’s hard to do that when you step in crap the minute you get out of the limo that brought you there.

Image credits: Harris top: andyharris.com. Harris in scrubs, Harris ad still image: Harris For Congress Channel (YouTube), via WBAL.

* Like we couldn’t figure that out already?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mama Grizzly drives her own bus

Alaska! It’s a state whose scale and space is a perfect stage for those with ambition to match the vistas of its rugged terrain. For the political personality and former temporary governor Sarah Palin, the state may well be a launching pad for the next phase in the most fascinating, if frankly bewildering, political quasi-career in memory.

Palin has lately had to deal with her kindred political spirits apparently deciding that (having worked to get Republican candidates elected in the midterms) her services on behalf of the party are no longer required. Karl Rove dissed her as a prospect for 2012; so did conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, and others in the Republican hierarchy. But rather than slink back to her cave to hibernate, Palin’s doubling down on visibility. Her latest gambit could well revolutionize political campaigns permanently.

On Sunday night, the TLC Channel debuted “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” the long-awaited travelogue/reality miniseries of the Palin family going about the business of their daily lives amid the unspoiled grandeur of the last frontier. The debut, in keeping with TLC’s talent for extreme-family shows (“Jon & Kate Plus 8,” “19 and Counting” … where’s the balloon-boy brood?) drew just under 5 million viewers on Sunday, the highest for a debut in TLC’s brief history.

Some of them were probably curiosity seekers, viewers bored with “Sunday Night Football” and waiting for their “Mad Men” fix, people who figured they’d tune in to watch the bearded lady from Wasilla make an ass of herself. But it didn’t happen like that.

What’s developed so far is the start of a vivid eight-week advertisement for Alaska tourism that money couldn’t buy, as well as a sneaky, not quite subtle, cable-powered springboard for Palin’s political aspirations (whatever they might be). This is the introduction to Sarah Palin the nation never got on the campaign trail back in 2008. If this show had been around that summer and fall, when most of the country was asking “Sarah who?” the outcome of the presidential election might well have closer than it was. Maybe even something other than what it was.

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The first show’s rhythms, mix of elements and production values reflect the hand of executive producer Mark Burnett of "Survivor" fame. Part National Geographic-style celebration of nature, part study of a highly visible family in transition, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” proves how durable the Palin name is these days (daughter Bristol’s star turn on ABC’s "Dancing With the Stars" hasn’t hurt either).

With Palin being the political animal that she is, we might have expected one scene, in which Palin and husband Todd sit outside, surveying their spread and regarding with derision their recent neighbor, the author Joe McGinniss, who’s renting the house while writing a book about Palin. The Palins’ mental state of siege arouses a typical passive-aggressive expression from the former governor; a suggestion that their backyard McGinniss solution (erecting a 14-foot fence) is the solution to the nation’s immigration issues is so calculated and dumb it makes your hair hurt.

Another thing that makes the show at least briefly compelling is the revealing accident, that evidence of unintended consequences that, when all’s said and done, makes “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” a reality show for real.

In one scene, Palin, husband Todd and some of the children are salmon fishing from a boat observing a brown bear in the distance. That distance disappears fast when the bear sprints toward them at incredible speed — while still in the water. The look on Palin’s face, the obvious concern fast morphing to fear, is refreshing by virtue of how rarely we’ve seen her and her expressions in circumstances she can’t influence or control. You don’t cheat your way through an encounter like that with notes scribbled on your hand.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Throwing Mama Grizzly from the bus

If the 2012 presidential campaign really did start the day after the midterm elections, as some of the top wags have suggested, it didn’t get off to a good start for Sarah Palin.

The conservative political personality and former nominal Alaska governor barely got time to savor the victories of the candidates she supported in the midterms — her record’s an impressive 62-23, according to Politics Daily — before she faced challenges to her enviably elastic role in American politics, and, maybe, to any plans she harbors to pursue the Republican nomination for the presidency two years on.

First, it was a Halloween head slap, delivered that day in a Politico story by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, a piece that, based on its sourcing, calls into question the support she’d get from fellow Republicans if she went for it all:

“Top Republicans in Washington and in the national GOP establishment say the 2010 campaign highlighted an urgent task that they will begin in earnest as soon as the elections are over: Stop Sarah Palin,” Politico reported.

“Interviews with advisers to the main 2012 presidential contenders and with other veteran Republican operatives make clear they see themselves on a common, if uncoordinated, mission of halting the momentum and credibility Palin gained with conservative activists by plunging so aggressively into this year’s midterm campaigns. ...

“Many of these establishment figures argue in not-for-attribution comments that Palin’s nomination would ensure President Barack Obama’s reelection, as the deficiencies that marked her 2008 debut as a vice presidential nominee — an intensely polarizing political style and often halting and superficial answers when pressed on policy — have shown little sign of abating in the past two years,” the Politico story said.

The reporters quote one longtime Washington GOP insider: “’There is a determined, focused establishment effort … to find a candidate we can coalesce around who can beat Sarah Palin ... We believe she could get the nomination, but Barack Obama would crush her.’ "

The woman whose nomination these party insiders said would be “a disaster in waiting” [Politico’s phrase] pushed back.

Palin took to the safe redoubt of Fox News, where she is an analyst, to respond to the Politico story. "I learned back in the day that who, what, when, where, why of journalism,” she told Greta Van Susteren. “You report the facts; you let other people decide what their opinion is going to be. So having unnamed sources in an article like this is very, very, disappointing, you know. It doesn’t educate anybody. ... The paper that this story is printed on is not even worth wrapping my king salmon in.”

In typical Palinesque style, she attacked the reporters and the obvious need for unnamed sources, lashing out with a ritual passive-aggressive five minutes hate, rather than thinking about the source of their reporting — the people Palin should really be worried about. The ones in her own party.

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People like Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter and current Wall Street Journal columnist, who weighed in from there on Friday.

Noonan, who has loyally carried water for the Reagan administration and its role in history for decades now, called Palin on the carpet for some of Palin’s recent comments. She recently tried to dismiss criticism of her role in a new Alaska-based Discovery "reality show," barbs made by Bush #43 adviser and Prince of Darkness Karl Rove. Gamely but lamely, Palin ventured a parallel between her foray into television, and Reagan’s movie career, which preceded his political career by several years. In the interview, Palin mentioned Reagan's role in one movie she identified as "Bedtimes for Bonzo, bozo or something.”

Noonan, not amused, busted some rhetorical caps:

“Excuse me, but this was ignorant even for Mrs. Palin. Reagan people quietly flipped their lids, but I'll voice their consternation to make a larger point. Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59.) He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure. Then he was elected president.

"The point is not 'He was a great man and you are a nincompoop,' though that is true," Noonan writes. "The point is that Reagan's career is a guide, not only for the tea party but for all in politics. He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him. He wasn't in search of a life when he ran for office, and he wasn't in search of fame; he'd already lived a life, he was already well known, he'd accomplished things in the world."

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Olbermann weekend

The World Series was over, people were privately contemplating the end of the year, and Friday, like any other Friday in any early November, took on the attributes of an autumn day, set to end a minute or so earlier than the day before. There’s downtime like this even in today’s ravenous 24/7 news cycle. Barring some big-ass force majeure event and/or an act of God, weekends are generally quieter for news than the workweek. Generally.

But major media news broke early in the day: Keith Olbermann, author, essayist, sports commentator and point man/lightning rod anchor of MSNBC’s “Countdown” program, had been suspended indefinitely without pay from the network for making three donations last month to the campaigns of three congressional candidates during the just-ended election cycle.

What’s followed in the digital domain has been a direct reflection of how the mediasphere has evolved in recent months and years — and how much it hasn’t changed at all.

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The story, first reported in Politico at 6 a.m. EDT on Friday morning, asserted that Olbermann was suspended indefinitely without pay for making campaign contributions to Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords and to Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway.

In a statement to Politico, Olbermann admitted making the maximum legal donations of $2,400 apiece to each campaign. Somewhat problematic from the standpoint of optics was the fact that he contributed to the Grijalva and Giffords campaigns on Oct. 28 — the same day Grijalva appeared as a “Countdown” guest.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in a statement Friday: “I became aware of Keith's political contributions late last night. Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him indefinitely without pay."

“NBC has a rule against employees contributing to political campaigns, and a wide range of news organizations prohibit political contributions — considering it a breach of journalistic independence to contribute to the candidates they cover,” reported Politico’s Simmi Aujla.

Some in the media have come down on Olbermann, or engaged in a barely concealed schadenfreude, for his donations and an apparent lapse in professional ethics. But there’s been a conflation of two dissimilar situations that’s starting to cloud how the Olbermann issue is being reported, and accepted.

Olbermann has been taken to task by some pundits for apparent hypocrisy in condemning News Corporation, parent of Fox News, for making separate million-dollar donations to the Republican Governors Assoiciation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce while he was doing much the same thing.

Only Olbermann wasn’t doing much the same thing. The careful observer recognizes the difference. His donations were made as a private citizen exercising his right to contribute to the campaign(s) of his choice.

News Corporation donations to those two groups were made for the purpose of advancing the agenda of virtually every conservative political campaign; they were made in the name of the company, written on a company check, with all its obvious potential for abuse and lobbyist influence fueled by seven-figure sums — a fact of life for the foreseeable future, thanks to the Supremes’ Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.

Millions of dollars from News Corporation; $7,200 from Keith Olbermann … not exactly the same on the impact scale. That fact’s already being lost on certain voices in the public square, voices who hew to the idea of an inflexibly absolutist, church/state-style firewall between the fourth estate and the democracy it inhabits, between journalists and the world they live in.

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Regardless of all that, Olbermann apparently did violate NBC News policy on such matters. In part, that policy reads: “Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.”

But people have been pushing back on Olbermann’s behalf from everywhere. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke up in a statement: “At a time when the ownership of Fox News contributed millions of dollars to the Republican Party, when a number of Fox commentators are using the network as a launching pad for their presidential campaigns and are raising money right off the air, it is absolutely unacceptable that MSNBC suspended one of the most popular progressive commentators in the country.“

In a Friday tweet, DCDebbie cut to what may be the chase in the matter: “Keith Olbermann = ardent supporter of net neutrality. Comcast, the SECOND largest US Internet provider takes over MSNBC. Co-ink-ee-deenk?”

◊ ◊ ◊

One thing is unsettling. Politico reported that they found Olbermann’s donation to Grijalva in a Federal Election Commission filing. Under FEC rules, a donor may contribute a maximum of $2,400 to a candidate per general election campaign, and, clearly, donor identities are recorded. Olbermann, as sharp a knife in the media drawer as there is, must have known that. Did he forget about that when he wrote the checks to the three campaigners?

Or did Olbermann do this accidentally on purpose? Is this Olbermann’s strategy for forcing a showdown with management on the eve of NBC Universal’s acquisition by Internet and cable giant Comcast? Is Keith lookin’ to get out?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Jump ball

Was it all just a dream? Two days shy of two years ago, Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States and strode onto a stage in Grant Park in Chicago, where 250,000 of his fellow Americans waited to greet him in triumph.

Today, President Obama is a man under siege, his congressional majority having vanished last night’s midterm election, two years from when the president faces a vote for his own re-election. The pollsters and pundits got it right, but what they’d ventured for months was finally less wisdom than it was observation, less a matter of divining tea leaves and more a matter of paying attention — paying attention in ways, it turned out, the Democratic Party was not.

There’s no way to mitigate the degree to which the Democrats in Congress had their heads handed to them. On Tuesday about 9 P.M. eastern time, the House of Representatives returned to Republican control with a sudden and gravitational shift of congressional power not seen since 1948. When most of the counting was done, and still subject to change, the Republican Party gained 56 seats in the House, for a new total of 239, to the Democrats’ 187.

Insult to injury: The Democrats also lost six seats in the Senate, narrowing their majority there — and that with other contests still to be decided, probably not for days.

Despite everything thrown at the Democrats in the last two years from the birthers, the Foxes, the Limbaughs and Kristols; despite dodging fire from the loose Buchanans and being rhetorically imPalined, what doomed the Democratic Party was distilled by James Carville years ago. Now, as then, it’s the economy, stupid. What goes around comes around: The most potentially ruinous domestic financial upheaval since the Great Depression, the stage for which was set by the Bush administration, has claimed its latest victims, several of the Democratic officers of Congress who just got their pink slips in the dead of night.

◊ ◊ ◊

President Obama, doing his best to buck up the faithful in the wake of a devastating defeat for his party, offered reporters a postmortem in the East Room of the White House, consistent with his no-nonsense style. “We were in such a hurry to get things done, we didn’t change how things got done.”

That was just one part of what might as well be called Mea Culpa Obama, the president laying bare the throat.

“I think the overwhelming message that I hear from the voters is that we want everybody to act responsibly in Washington, we want you to work harder to arrive at consensus, we want you to focus completely on jobs and the economy and growing it, so that we're ensuring a better future for our children and our grandchildren," he said.

“And, you know, I think that there's no doubt that as I reflect on the results of the election it underscores for me that I have got to do a better job, just like everybody else in Washington does ...

“[T]his is a growth process and — and an evolution. And the relationship that I have had with the American people is one that built slowly, peaked at this incredible high, and then during the course of the last two years, as we've together gone through some very difficult times, has gotten rockier and tougher.

“And, you know, it's going to, I'm sure, have some more ups and downs during the course of me being in this office.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Analysis by the media, of course, was pretty much immediate. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow effectively blamed Obama’s loss on history, articulating the historical reasoning behind Tuesday’s losses. It was hardly anodyne for the nation’s Democrats and progressives, but it definitely put things in a longer perspective: More often than not, as a matter of the reliability of the political tides, the party in power has suffered congressional losses in the midterm vote after their own election to power.

But it’s just as true (if not historically durable) that, just as Obama’s election juggernaut two years ago broke with history at every turn, there was no reason to think the wheels would fall off that juggernaut this soon, no reason to think that the same populist forces Team Obama had unleashed and harnessed to win election couldn’t be sustained for two years, to help the Democrats in Congress get over.

The Democrats weren’t necessarily fated to lose big on Tuesday. History wasn’t on their side, it’s true, but they gave history a lot of help. Progressives’ distaste for the prosecution of two wars; their lingering disappointment over abandonment of the health-care public option; and a sense (or a suspicion) that Obama has walked away from certain of his deepest principles rooted in the rule of law— they all led to poor turnouts for Democrats, and votes for GOP candidates that were, really, not so much votes for Republicans as votes against Democrats.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Breitbart slips ABC’s leash, snarls, walks away

If you went to ABC News last night expecting to see right-wing video fictionalist Andrew Breitbart, you were probably disappointed — by the fact that Breitbart didn’t show up. Turns out that Breitbart, the conservative online firebrand and inventor of the Shirley Sherrod racist narrative, was disinvited from ABC News’ election-night coverage on the eve of Tuesday’s vote, according to a story in Politico.

Politico reported that Andrew Morse, the head of ABC News Digital, sent Breitbart a letter saying that ABC thought it was “best” if he “not participate.” This came in the wake of a firestorm of criticism distilled by a letter-writing campaign spearheaded by Color of Change, a grassroots progressive organization. The Morse letter’s tone is oddly accusatory, written as if Breitbart had somehow brought this on himself.

“We have spent the past several days trying to make clear to you your limited role as a participant in our digital town hall to be streamed on ABCNews.com and Facebook,” Morse wrote. “The post on your blog last Friday created a widespread impression that you would be analyzing the election on ABC News.”

“We made it as clear as possible as quickly as possible that you had been invited along with numerous others to participate in our digital town hall,” Morse said. “Instead of clarifying your role, you posted a blog on Sunday evening in which you continued to claim a bigger role in our coverage. As we are still unable to agree on your role, we feel it best for you not to participate.”

Breitbart went predictably ballistic, attacking ABC for “bowing to left-wing pressure” from Color of Change, Media Matters and other groups of progressive persuasion.

“This is about cowardice and caving into what was an overwhelming onslaught by Media Matters, The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo and Daily Kos,” Breitbart said to Politico. “They know they can do it at any time and any place and ABC will bow to pressure.”

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s unsaid in Morse’s letter to Breitbart is exactly what it was that Breitbart was supposed to do with ABC in the first place. It talks about Breitbart’s “limited role as a participant” in some kind of election-related discussion. In an earlier letter to the media clarifying Breitbart’s role, Morse said flat-out that Breitbart was not being brought on for election analysis.

But political analysis, of a fashion, is what the man does for a living. Did ABC bring him on to keep the water glasses filled and help move the chairs?

We might have expected Breitbart’s reaction, what happens when a pit bull turns on a handler when the food the beast was expecting is suddenly taken away. But it may be a plus for Breitbart; with so many conditions being made on his appearance beforehand, and with the criticism that followed the announcement, Breitbart may have privately decided he’d be kept on too short a rhetorical leash anyway.

A win-win: ABC News, already sort of embarrassed, prevents what would likely have been a viral online train wreck with the company name all over it. Breitbart burnishes his bona fides as a maverick attack dog for the right, snarling at ABC as he walks away. Everyone back to starting positions, more or less.

Image credits: Breitbart: Fox News Channel. ABC logo: © 2010 ABC.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Reid holds his Senate seat in Nevada

“Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid swept to victory tonight, relying on his formidable campaign organization to blunt Republican enthusiasm that appeared poised to carry Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle to office,” reports the Las Vegas Sun.

“Democrats at party headquarters in Las Vegas leapt to their feet amid huge cheers when multiple news organizations began to call the race for Reid.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Reid, speaking at a victory rally in Las Vegas: “Today Nevada chose hope over fear. Nevada chose to move forward, not backwards. Nevada made this choice because we know it’s not us versus them. It’s about every Nevadan, all of us, in this together ... This race has been called, but the fight is far from over.” Reid appears to have won by five percentage points.

Reid's angle on Angle

NBC News reporting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a solid lead over his improvisational challenger, Sharron Angle. The lead is near double digits — 51 percent to 44 percent, with 65 percent of the vote in — but NBC characterizes it as "too early to call."

Meanwhile, in governors' races: John Hickenlooper, the Democratic mayor of Denver, wins the race to succeed the retiring Gov. Bill Ritter, beating the irredeemably intolerant Tom Tancredo, 53 percent to 37 percent, with 36 percent of precincts reporting. And in Massachusetts, the Democratic incumbent, Deval Patrick (a close friend of President Obama) is projected to win re-election.

Manchin and Paul claim victory

West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin is on his way to Washington. With votes still out there but a commanding lead with more than 40 percent of precincts reporting, Manchin claimed victory in a speech just now: "I want to thank all the people of West Virginia for believing in me ... we achieved so much as a state working together ... Tonight, I want all of you to celebrate this victory because it's all of you that made it happen, every one of you."

The opthamalogist turned Republican politician Rand Paul is en route to a Kentucky Senate seat, with an apparent double-digit win over Jack Conway. Paul spoke minutes ago, putting his win into context: "It's a message of fiscal sanity. It's a message of limited, limited constitutional government and balanced budgets."

NBC: House to Republicans

Brian Williams, NBC News, 9:01 P.M. East Coast: Control of the House of Representatives projected to shift to the Republicans.

NBC says that when the count is all said and done, the new breakdown in the House will be either:

Democrats 198 or 199
Republicans 237 or 236

Shine up the gavel, Nancy. You're apparently about to turn it over.

The earlies: First returns 2

From MSNBC: Marco Rubio projected to win Florida Senate race in a walk. Rubio with 50 percent of the vote this far, with now-independent and former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in second with 29 percent, and Democrat Kendrick Meek trailing with 20 percent.

In New Hampshire's Senate contest, Tea Party favorite Kelly Ayotte projected to win.

In Maryland, Democratic incumbent Barbara Mikulski projected to win re-election to the Senate. Same for Republicans Richard Shelby in Alabama and Tom Coburn in Oklahoma.

And from CNN at 8:32 p.m.: Pending results from the witch and coven counties, conservative Christian, Tea Party wingnut and constitutional scholar Christine O'Donnell, is losing to Chris Coons, by deep double digits — at this point, 64 percent to 33 percent. Down goes Frazier.

The earlies: First returns

MSNBC: 7:30 P.M. East Coast:

In the West Virginia Senate race, Gov, Joe Manchin is ahead of challenger John Raese, but outcome is too early to call.

In the Ohio Senate contest, Republican Rob Portman leads Democrat Lee Fisher to replace the retiring George Voinovich.

And in the Buckeye State’s race for governor, incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland is locked in a race with Republican challenger John Kasich in a race considered “too close to call.” Congressional redistricting hangs in the balance.

The earlies: Exit polls

By way of Emily Swanson at The Huffington Post, some of the early exit polls in the various Senate races.

Right now, it's a mixed bag, with Democrat Richard Blumenthal smartly ahead of Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer well positioned over Carly Fiorina, and Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin well ahead in West Virginia.

For Republicans, Mario Rubio has a commanding double-digit lead in Florida, and Rand Paul is well up on Democrat Jack Conway. The Florida raqce between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle is even.

Blumenthal (D-CT) +8
Rubio (R-FL) +21
Blunt (R-MO) +10
Boxer (D-CA) +8
Kirk (R-IL) +6
Paul (R-KY) +11,
Bennet (D-CO) +2
Toomey (R-PA) +4
Murray (D-WA) +6
Manchin (D-WV) +7
Johnson (R-WI) +5

Show time

OK. We’ve run out of excuses. We’ve heard all the candidates, been told about the polls (maybe you even responded to one), and with all the TV ads, we’re starting to feel like Alex undergoing his therapy in “A Clockwork Orange.” Enough. It’s time to vote.

And we’ve been told by the various high priests and priestesses of politics and the media that it’s already been decided, regardless of the turnout. Don’t you believe that crap.

Vote. It’s your right. It’s one of the few unassailable facts of American life: Voting matters. The arrogant clucks sniping from the sidelines that “one vote doesn’t make any difference” are missing the point. When elections are decided by millions of “one votes,” guess what? Every one of those one-votes counts in the vast aggregate of what it takes to make this machine that would go of itself go at all. We are the drops that form the ocean of this democracy.

Vote. It’s your responsibility. Not to get all civics-class on you, but it’s the way our social and political machinery works, it’s the way things get done. It’s not always pretty. More often than not it makes sausage-making benign by comparison. But it’s necessary to do what’s necessary, to do what needs doing, from patching the potholes on the street where you live to fixing the holes in our federal government — if need be, by replacing the ones who put the holes there to begin with.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s another, wider reason for voting; you might call it existentially enlightened self-interest: You need to be there because there are forces in this election that are counting on you not showing up to vote, forces that are building their strategies for victory around getting you to deny your own existence. Some have candidly admitted that their path to victory depends on the citizens who oppose their methods and maneuvers to simply fail to vote against those methods and maneuvers. In the plainest civic sense, to utterly not exist.

So, prove ‘em wrong. Because that’s what the vote is, in this country. Still. In spite of everything, it still works. In this country, this is how we do it. This is how we say yes and no in ways that matter, win or lose. This is where you stand up and count for something, rather than stay at home believing the punditburo when it says it’s all over but the counting. Because if you do that, that’s when you don’t count for anything.

And doesn’t modern life try to make you feel enough like that already?

Do it. If you haven’t done it before now, get that ballot in the to-do thingie holder on the kitchen table, fill it out and mail it in. Or go the traditional route; there’s still something especially American about that stand-in-line experience, for better and worse.

But seriously, take care of this business. Don’t let nobody turn you ‘round. It’s show time, and you — we — really need to show up this time. Vote — and vote your convictions, not your suspicions. Blow a bowl when you get home tonight. Eat next week. Now, today, vote. By mail or in person. Just do it. Be there. Ahora.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Two of the dumbest, saddest moves made by major media organizations in recent memory happened almost back to back recently. One gave credence to the idea that a legitimate commentator who strays from journalistic orthodoxy will be a candidate for dismissal; the other gave traction to the idea that a straight-up charlatan with no respect for journalistic accuracy will be a source of good ratings on Election Night. Both are pretty good indicators of a media hierarchy struggling with the arrival of a future where the established proprieties and traditions of journalism are under attack like never before.

The first case was a reactionary reach for political correctness, with no consideration of the fallout. Juan Williams, the author and longtime commentator for National Public Radio, ran afoul of NPR’s sensibilities and its ethical code recently, did so in ways that should be worrying to any journalist or observer of modern America for whom the First Amendment is more real than theoretical.

Williams appeared Oct. 18 on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” and host Bill O’Reilly asked him to comment on the idea that the United States is having a Muslim problem.

“I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality,” Williams said. “I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams, who was obviously speaking in the context of offering an opinion (like how many other journalists and observers out there today?) was cashiered on Oct. 20 with, apparently, no opportunity to personally make his case before NPR management.

◊ ◊ ◊

Regrettably, some of Williams’ comments indicated a willingness to validate the positions of O’Reilly, whose anti-Muslim bias has been so long a given of his world view and his on-air commentary, it’s not even remarkable anymore. Williams’ seeming approval of that bias puts him in a bad light, and in bad company.

But NPR’s rush to judgment failed to view Williams’ comments through at least one other prism, in the context of the journalistic confessional: the opinion of one 21st-century American grappling with his own visceral discontents at seeing visibly identifiable people of the Muslim faith — a discontent made that much more poignantly ironic by Williams’ own life as an African American male. What could have been a profoundly teachable moment — a topical lesson of civics and tolerance, not from the classroom but from the newsroom — was pretty much squandered by NPR’s automatic decision to drag Williams to the tumbrels.

Other, later, more mitigating comments from Williams, moments after the offending quotes above, were never considered. Neither were other comments he'd previously made, namely, that Muslims shouldn't generally be blamed for terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists. NPR’s conditioned reflex for boilerplate journalistic impartiality kicked in, and Williams’ contract was terminated.

Opposition was fierce.

“I thought NPR sort of, shall we say, overreacted a little bit,” said CBS News’ Bob Schieffer to Don Imus last week. “Maybe Juan could have been a little more artful in the way he put that, but … he’s a good person. I don’t think he deserved that.”

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee issued a statement that, despite its conservative source, accurately cut to the chase: “NPR has discredited itself as a forum for free speech and a protection of the First Amendment rights of all and has solidified itself as the purveyor of politically correct pabulum and protector of views that lean left.”

Political personality Sarah Palin weighed in with a predictably punitive conservative response: “If NPR is unable to tolerate an honest debate about an issue as important as Islamic terrorism, then it's time for 'National Public Radio' to become 'National Private Radio ... It's time for Congress to defund this organization...President Obama should make clear his commitment to free and honest discussion of the jihadist threat in our public debates - and Congress should make clear that unless NPR provides that public service, not one more dime."

◊ ◊ ◊

But Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News really nailed it on his ”Attytood” blog. In a column partly titled “Journalism’s new Sharia law,” he said:

“I’m not surprised this happened. NPR’s rash and ill-considered actions did not take a place in a vacuum. Increasingly, the public radio entity has become a leader … in an almost Taliban-like drive to enforce a brand of unrealistic-to-the-point-of-insane journalistic purity. By that I mean that NPR — like a number of other big-name journalistic outfits — is reacting to an age of modernity, in which new media and a new playing field have allowed for a broader and more open discussion of issues with more potential for transparency, by retreating deeper into a dank temple of objectivity when journalists are stripped of opinions and the ability to discuss things in ways that most normal people would recognize as ... being human. ...”

Bunch laments the ways in which “... the journalism world -- under assault on so many fronts, losing readers and dollars as we struggle to adapt to the new digital age -- retreats into what is increasingly becoming the media's version of Sharia law, requiring reporters and ‘analysts’ to wear their opinion burkas, and holding occasional stonings and beheadings in the public square to enforce the old world order.”

Williams has moved on nicely, thanks. He’d barely left the NPR building with some office supplies and his severance check before he was offered a three-year, $2 million gig … with Fox News. Reader Jerry, commenting at The New York Times, pithily caught the drift: “Juan Williams states that he was the only African-American male on the air at NPR. Is that true? If so [NPR President and CEO Vivian] Schiller has just made Fox's slogan of ‘Fair and Balanced’ a lot more accurate. Fox is more diverse than NPR now.”

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